Dr. Michiel van Elk

Associate Professor at Leiden University

History repeating: guidelines to address common problems in psychedelic science


Research in the last decade has expressed considerable optimism about the clinical potential of psychedelics for the treatment of mental disorders. This optimism is reflected in an increase in research papers, investments by pharmaceutical companies, patents, media coverage, as well as political and legislative changes. However, psychedelic science is facing serious challenges that threaten the validity of core findings and raise doubt regarding clinical efficacy and safety. In this talk, I introduce the 10 most pressing challenges, grouped into easy, moderate, and hard problems. I show how these problems threaten internal validity (treatment effects are due to factors unrelated to the treatment), external validity (lack of generalizability), construct validity (unclear working mechanism) or statistical conclusion validity (conclusions do not follow from the data and methods). These problems tend to co-occur in psychedelic studies, limiting conclusions that can be drawn about the safety and efficacy of psychedelic therapy. I provide a roadmap for tackling these challenges and share a checklist that researchers, journalists, funders, policy makers, and other stakeholders can use to assess the quality of psychedelic science. Addressing today’s problems is necessary to find out whether the optimism regarding the therapeutic potential of psychedelics has been warranted and to avoid history repeating itself. 


Michiel van Elk obtained degrees in philosophy, biological psychology and the psychology of religion. He pursued his PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience at the Donders Institute in Nijmegen, followed by a post-doc position at the UCSB in CA, (USA) and the EPFL in Switzerland. He has been affiliated as a lecturer and Fulbright scholar at Stanford University and as research fellow at The Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies. After positions at the University of Amsterdam and VU University he is now affiliated as associate professor at Leiden University, where he heads the Psychedelic, Religious, Spiritual and Mystical (PRSM) experiences lab. He studies altered states of consciousness using a variety of different methods including field research, phenomenology, psychophysical tools and neuroimaging techniques. Michiel has published numerous scientific articles, popular science books and his work has been featured by the New York Times, National Geographic and Daily Beast.